October 24, 2003 No.

Shirin 'Ebadi – Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

On October 10, 2003, Iranian human-rights activist Shirin 'Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The 56 year-old attorney became Iran's first female judge in 1969. A secular Muslim, she was removed from office after the Islamic revolution in 1979. Since then, she has been active as a human rights advocate providing legal representation for victims of political persecution and has fought for the rights of women and children in Iran. Among her other activities, 'Ebadi played a major role in the fight for Iranian ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a battle which was lost due to opposition from the Guardians Council and various religious leaders.

In addition to calling for radical reforms, 'Ebadi has argued for the strict separation of church and state. This is in contrast to the position of the ruling clerics in Iran, including President Mohammad Khatami, whose vision and doctrine of religious democracy is based on the unity of state and religion.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Shirin 'Ebadi which was published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat as well as reactions to 'Ebadi's award as they appeared in the Iranian media:

Part I:

'Ebadi: Khatami Wasted Every Chance

'Ebadi granted an interview to Iranian journalist Amir Taheri which was published in the October 19, 2003 edition of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. The following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

There Can Be Reform In Iran Without Violence

Question: "…There were some who thought that you would prefer to remain in Europe."

'Ebadi: " The possibility of not returning [to Iran] was never on the agenda. Without the connection to Iran, my life has no meaning. I was not ready for what happened. I didn't even know that I was a candidate. As I said, from the beginning I saw the prize as a message from the international community, first of all, to the Iranian people, primarily to women, and then to the [entire] Islamic world. The content of the message is that human rights are the property of all human beings, and peace is possible only when these rights are respected."

Question: "Does the fact that you have won the Nobel Prize give additional momentum to the democratic movement [in Iran] whose activity seems to have lessened in recent weeks?"

'Ebadi: "This is my hope. The content of the message is that the struggle for human rights in Iran is not a private matter, and it reinforces civil society without which democracy cannot be achieved. Change takes place in society when the behavior of many within it changes. This is what is happening in our country."

Question: "Can the current regime be reformed without violence?"

'Ebadi: "Yes. I maintain that nothing useful and lasting can emerge from violence. Similarly, I think that we can act in the framework of the law, and aspire towards the required changes by means of constitutional measures. I have in no way ever done anything in violation of the law, because I support peaceful [change]. The number of people who want reform is constantly growing."

'In Iran – Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan There is an Internal Mechanism for Change'

Question: "Some say that your winning is a political move on the part of Europe, which seeks to prove that political change can take place by means of 'flexible force' instead of the 'violent force' that the U.S. has used in Iraq and Afghanistan."

'Ebadi: "I disagree with this analysis. The situation in Iran is different than that in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no mechanism for internal change in Iraq and Afghanistan; in contrast, it does exist in Iran. Europe realized that in order to stop the wars, human rights must be honored across the world. This is a principle, and a practical position."

Question: "You supported the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. Do you still see him as a leader of the reform movement?"

'Ebadi: "I was one of millions who voted for Khatami, because if they did not do so the conservatives would have won the election. We had no alternative. Nevertheless, unfortunately, we must acknowledge that President Khatami has wasted all the historical chances given him, and the democratic and reform movements have bypassed him."

Question: "President Khatami said that your winning is not worthy of 'all the fuss.' What do you say to this?"

'Ebadi: " I respect the opinion of the president. People are free to have their own opinion about everything."

Question: "Some say that in time, you will become nothing more than a memory, like the Burmese leader Aung Suu Kyi, who also won the Nobel Peace Prize."

'Ebadi: "Burma is not my territory, but I know a great deal about Iran. Our matter is greater than me personally, or than any other person. We have a deeply rooted and developing movement for democracy and human rights, and it is supported in all sectors of society."

'The Iranian People are Deeply Disappointed With the Islamic Revolution'

Question: " The situation in Iran seems stagnated. All elections show a sweeping majority supporting reform, but there is no reform. Some even believe there is a need for a new revolution."

'Ebadi: "I think that the age of revolutions is over. Similarly, there is no guarantee that another revolution will bring anything better than what happened to us 24 years ago. After years of observation, I reached the conclusion that revolutions never accomplish what they promise. What I call for is a reform movement that will include all areas of political, social, and cultural life, and, naturally, human rights. The Iranian people are deeply disappointed with the Islamic Revolution. During the Islamic Revolution and the war in Iraq that followed it, an immeasurable number of families lost their sons and providers. The nation lost the best of its young men, and millions of Iranians were forced into exile. Covering the expenses of this revolution will continue for entire generations. The only way out of this is reform by peaceful means. Khatami is not the only one calling for reform, and just because his government has failed does not mean that the reform movement has failed. In any event, Khatami's second and last term will end, but this means that there will be no hope for our people."

Question: " In practical terms, how do you think change can come about in Iran?"

'Ebadi: " We do not need to predict history. There are always surprises. Change can take place through elections. What we need is a different election law that will permit citizens to vote for the candidate they want. If the present method continues, and the Guardians Council continues to hold the powers enabling it to determine the election results, many of the Iranian people will most certainly boycott the general elections anticipated for March 2004, just as they did during the recent local council elections."

'I Support Separation of Religion and State'

Question: "Should the Islamic Republic be replaced with a secular regime?"

'Ebadi: " There is some confusion on this matter. What we have in Iran today is not a religious regime, but a regime in which the people holding the power exploit religion in order to remain in power. If the current regime does not mend its ways and begin to reflect the will of the people, it will fail even if it adopts a secular path. I support separation of religion and state because the political arena is open to an unlimited number of interests. This position [i.e., separation of religion and state] is in effect supported by the leading religious authorities, and it corresponds with Shi'ite tradition."

Question: "What do you say to those who claim that Islam and human rights are incompatible?"

'Ebadi: "I say to them that they are wrong. It is true that human rights are violated in most of the Islamic countries, but this is a political rather than a religious reality. We have every type of regime in the Islamic countries; there are secular, Marxist, and pan-Arab regimes. These have violated human rights as well. If an oppressive regime is cruel to its people, how is this connected to talk of incompatibility between Islam and human rights? The Iraqi Ba'ath regime was assumed to be secular, and in North Korea there is no Islamic regime."

Question: "So do you think that we must distance religion from political discussion?"

'Ebadi: "As individuals, we feel the influence of our religious beliefs, or lack thereof. This is one of the facts of life. What I suggest is that we must not enable anyone to impose his personal view regarding religion on others by force, oppression, or pressure. People must stop exploiting Islam for their abhorrent corruption. They talk of an 'Islamic' mentality so that they can assert that women are weak and unstable and incapable of playing a role in decision-making. They talk of an 'Islamic' economy so that they will be able to justify their exploitation of the nation's resources. They talk of 'Islamic' education so that they can justify their policy of brainwashing children and young people. They talk of Islamic law so that they can play semantic games in a way that serves their goals."

Question: "There is talk of the possibility that you will head the list of democratic candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections, or perhaps submit your candidacy for the presidency in 2005."

'Ebadi: "I defend human rights and I am a lawyer, and I have no other interest. I can say that I am not planning to run for election. The prize I received attests that the way I have chosen in the past two decades is the right way. I am the staff of the helpless and the voice of the voiceless. I must prove that I am worthy of the honor I have received."

Struggling for Equality is Doing What Allah Wanted Us To Do

Question: "When you are outside Iran, you do not wear the veil. Why not?"

'Ebadi: "I wear the veil in Iran because it is the law. If I do not, I will be breaking the law. I want to change the law because I think that it is not the state's business to tell women whether to cover their heads or not. I do not wear a veil outside Iran because there is no such law. Many Iranian women do the same. Instead of telling women that they must cover the hair on their heads, we must teach them how to develop their minds. I am also opposed to countries that make laws prohibiting women from wearing the veil."

Question: "Do you have any message for Muslim women?"

'Ebadi: " Yes. Keep on struggling. Do not believe that you are condemned to inferior status. Look carefully in the Koran so that the oppressors will not succeed in misleading you with their commentary and their selective quotes. Do not let people masquerading as clerics claim that they have a monopoly on understanding Islam. Teach yourself and invest your best efforts in competing in all areas of life. Allah created us equal, and when we struggle for equality, we are doing what Allah wanted us to do."

Part II:

Iranian Press On 'Ebadi's Award

The Prize is 'The Result of the Cultural Hegemony of Western Civilization' [2]

Mohssen Yahyawi, Deputy Director of the orthodox and hardliner Society of Engineers, viewed 'Ebadi's award of the prize as an attack on Iran: "As enemies of the revolution, the Western states- with America, in particular, at the forefront- are trying to support so-called forces for reform as a way of undermining order in the Islamic Republic." In her speeches, he said, Shirin 'Ebadi called for the abolishment of many Islamic laws. "I view the award of the peace prize as a kind of sneer and as a symbol of the hostility directed against the Islamic Republic." [3]

The conservative newspaper Jomhouri-ye Eslami, in its article titled "The West Awards Shirin 'Ebadi Nobel Peace Prize," stressed 'Ebadi's participation in the 2000 Berlin Conference, [4] and accused 'Ebadi of having collaborated with "American groups," [5] stating that the Iranian judicial authorities had a large file on her.

The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is closely allied with the religious leadership, mentioned in a brief article that, in addition to the government spokesman Abdullah Ramazanzadeh and the Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi, the new Minister for Islamic Guidance, Masjed Jamei, had congratulated 'Ebadi. The article stressed that 'Ebadi had held a "leading" position in the judicial administration under the Shah. It also stressed that she had been convicted after the Islamic takeover for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran," and was accused of falsifying video interviews. The videos in question documented threats and pressure exerted against various reformists by members of militant groups with state support. [6]

'If the World were Being Truthful, they Would Have to Give Khatami This Prize'

Hojatoleslam Tof Hashemi, publisher of the reformist daily Entekhab, told ISNA, the Iranian Students' News Agency, that although he believed that an Iranian winning the prize was cause for celebration, he also held some reservations: "If the world were being truthful, they would have to give Mr. Khatami a prize like this, so the world would follow the path of dialogue and peace. But as we see, there are attitudes [that are] very hostile which are striving to monopolize politics. There is no way that this prize was awarded to 'Ebadi without the Americans' approval and control. We will be pleased if Mrs. 'Ebadi uses the prize to enhance the reputation of Iran, but if it is turned into an instrument used to exert pressure against our people, that will be a cause to reconsider it." [7]

In another article, ISNA documented additional positions, including that of the reform Islamist Seyyed Abadi, a member of the Majlis (i.e. the Iranian Parliament) Committee on Legal Affairs. He too expressed displeasure over 'Ebadi's award: "The Nobel peace prize is not awarded to people who have deserved such a prize for their balanced desire for peace… If we were to make a just decision, we would have to conclude that, under the given circumstances, the Iranian president is the only person who propagated the 'dialogue of civilizations' at the UN in 2002. If they had truly wanted to award the Nobel peace prize justly and fairly, and make it a foundation stone of policies for world peace, then the Iranian President would have received the prize. But the malign hostility in international institutions have not taken these truths into consideration."

Khatami himself also said that "political criteria" had bearing on the committee's decision to give the award to 'Ebadi. Stating that he was "pleased that a compatriot has achieved such success," Khatami downplayed the importance of the Nobel peace prize and urged 'Ebadi to focus on the "interests of the Islamic world and of Iran, and not allow anyone to exploit her success." [8]

The Nobel Peace Prize is a Political Tool 'Intended to Serve the Interests of Colonialism and the Decadent World'

Hojatoleslam Ali Saidi, member of the Central Committee of the Clergy Assembly and the leader of the left-Islamist organization Mehdi Karrubi, said the award "will not have a particular impact on the Iranian population because Iranians understand the goals of instruments like this one." Saidi also sees the award as a tool used by "Zionist circles": "They use levers like the peace prize as a means of politically supporting certain elements in the country." [9]

Assadolah Badamchian, director of the political center of the modern left-Islamist organization Jamiyate Motalefeye Eslami, headed by the brother of President Khatami, asserted that Western interests were the deciding factor in the selection of 'Ebadi: "If a scientific prize is granted to someone because of his services to humanity, this is praiseworthy, but if someone's prize is intended to serve the interests of colonialism and the decadent world, then this is a badge of shame." Badamchian referred to the role of Nobel laureate Anwar Sadat in betraying the Palestinians at Camp David. He argued that almost no one who has received the prize has done so for having served his country. "It is typical that the peace prize be awarded to a woman who calls herself a reformer and who is supported by Powell, Blair, Bush and the leaders of 'world arrogance.'"

'The Rich Iranian and Islamic Culture Offers the Best Model for the World'

The day after E'badi received the award, Ramazanzadeh referred to the "high potential of Iranian culture and civilization." [10] Mohammad Kianushrad, member of the National Security Council of the Majlis, stressed that "the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Iranian woman is very important and proves how rich Iranian history - which has been further enriched by the [introduction of] Islam - really is. In Iranian society there are many people who have earned a prize like this." [11]

Seyyed Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Parliamentary Secretary to the President on Legal Affairs, welcomed efforts to achieve human rights throughout the world: "The fact that an Iranian has won the peace prize makes a strong point for our country. I feel that Iranians have the ability to succeed at every level. I congratulate Mrs. 'Ebadi and, as an Iranian, I am pleased. Iranian women are active on the international and national stages and in various elections. Actions that limit freedom are subject to constant criticism from reformists." [12]

'The Nobel Peace Prize has Awoken the Pride of the Iranian Women'

Elahe Kolai, a member of the National Security Council, stated that the award shows that "democratization of Iranian society has had an influence, not only on the region and the Islamic [world], but all around the world."

Also speaking positively of the award was Fariba Dawudimohajer, a reform-Islamist and member of the Central Committee of an Association of Female Journalists: "All Iranian women celebrate Mrs. 'Ebadi's triumph."

Mariam Behrusi of the Islamist women's organization Seinab said: "We wish Iranian women success in all fields of science, politics, and business. I am certainly glad that an Iranian woman could meet with this international success." The reform-Islamist Majlis deputy Fateme Haqiqatju also congratulated 'Ebadi: "The Nobel peace prize has awoken the pride of the Iranians, especially of freedom loving women, so that they cry out in one voice, that peace, freedom, and love stand in truth for Iran."

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 19, 2003.

[2] Entekhab, October 11, 2003.

[3] ISNA, October 10, 2003.

[4] A conference of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (2000). The conference was interrupted because of protests for the Iranian opposition in exile. After the Iranian guests went back to Iran, Some of them were arrested. Ojaoleslam Eshkewari, for example, is still in prison. He spoke of secularism and Islam. Prof. Pahlavan remained in Germany.

[5] Jomhouri-ye Eslami, October 11, 2003.

[6] Kayhan, October 11, 2003.

[7] ISNA, October 10, 2003.

[8] Tehran Times, October 15, 2003.

[9] ISNA, October 10, 2003.

[10] IRNA, October 11, 2003.

[11] ISNA, October 11, 2003.

[12] ISNA, October 10, 2003.